West Virginia leads the U.S. in the number of small farmers, and a team of researchers at West Virginia University is hoping to help them increase the safety of the local foods sold to communities.
Researchers are developing a three-step wash process to help mitigate food safety risks associated with locally grown fresh produce in the state, thanks to a partnership between the WVU Extension Service’s Small Farm Center and the university’s Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Design.
Oftentimes, they say, produce purchased from farmers’ markets is perceived as being safer than products bought from conventional stores.
However, certain small growers are not required to conduct sample tests for pathogens on their products under Food and Drug Administration exemptions, according to Cangliang Shen, the lead researcher on the project and an assistant professor of human nutrition and foods.
Farmers who qualify for the exemptions, he says, must meet certain criteria—including three-year average sales of less than $500,000, an intrastate distribution not exceeding a 275-mile radius, and direct distribution to consumers, restaurants, or retail food stores.
“Although the FDA allots exemptions to certain small growers, that doesn’t mean they are exempt from providing safe food to their communities,” Shen said.
Prior research conducted by the team found higher percentages of Salmonella and Listeria on fresh produce sold at West Virginia farmers markets than had been previously published.
Lisa Jones, the program coordinator for the Small Farm Center, stressed that the percentages weren’t high enough to cause an outbreak, though there is always room for improvement with respect to food safety.
“Our mission is two-fold,” Jones said: “Help small growers provide safe produce to consumers and protect their businesses.”
To test the three-step wash process, Shen said the team is partnering with Preston County Workshop Inc., a non-profit, integrated rehabilitation facility, to implement the system and evaluate its viability for small farmers.
“The workshop can wash, grade, and pack locally grown food from area farmers,” Shen said. “This ability has elevated the facility into a nutrient for growth, development, and maintenance of the region’s agriculture.
“This project will supply the organization with scientific information regarding the efficacy of the three-step wash to inactivate foodborne pathogens during their processing line.”
Shen said the partnership will allow the team to conduct an economic analysis to assess changes in consumer and farmer behaviors with respect to agricultural food safety.
Xaioli Etienne, an associate professor of resource economics and management, says that to successfully adopt the three-step wash process, it must be a worthwhile investment for farmers and consumers.
“With the entire process in place, we must also evaluate whether consumers are willing to pay more for safer produce. After all, farmers need to pay for the equipment and labor used in this new cleaning method,” she explained.
“In particular, we will study how much extra consumers are willing to pay for safer produce, and whether this increased price can cover the extra cost incurred to farmers.”
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